Cheap-shot artist Rafa Márquez a menace to MLS

Posted: April 21, 2012 in Soccer
Story By Brian Straus of the Sporting News

    MLS needed a bad guy. There were a few pretenders here and there, like  Dema Kovalenko, Carlos Ruiz, Clint Mathis or even David Beckham, but no one who  really boiled the blood. MLS was too wholesome. It was too nice.

It was more after-school special than R-rated thriller.

MLS finally had its villain in Rafa Márquez. But when the Red  Bulls defender tackled, then kicked, San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Shea  Salinas, shattering the 25-year-old’s collar bone, he crossed an obvious line.  (AP Photo)

The best stories always have a compelling villain, and the best villains  are flamboyant, unpredictable and maybe even a bit cartoonish. They’re dangerous  and unrepentant, and you can’t take your eyes off them.

Any good narrative needs one, and sports are no different. From Ty Cobb  to Terrell Owens, athletes in black hats captivate and infuriate.

In August 2010, MLS finally landed a genuine antagonist, one with whom  most American soccer fans already had a history.

Rafa Márquez had introduced himself to partisans north of the border in  the summer of ’02. That year, the then-23-year-old defender, already a rising  star with French power AS Monaco, put the finishing touches on Mexico’s 2-0  World Cup round-of-16 loss to the U.S. by head-butting Cobi Jones.

Seven years later, in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, Márquez  cemented his unsavory reputation with a vicious, studs-up assault on U.S.  goalkeeper Tim Howard.

The disgust felt by many when the New York Red Bulls signed Mexico’s  captain to a 3 1/2-year contract the following summer was palpable. But nobody  could deny his pedigree: Two international titles with El Tri, seven years at FC  Barcelona, two UEFA Champions League triumphs.

The plan was clear, though: While Márquez graced a trophy-starved Red  Bulls franchise with his talent and experience, he’d win over those American  fans who knew him only through those two isolated and regrettable incidents.

It didn’t work out that way, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work out.

While Márquez was gliding through games with disinterest or ripping on  his teammates to the press, he became the villain MLS needed. His apparent  contempt for both friend and foe made him easy to dislike, and the only people  who really suffered as a result of his antics were associated with the club who  brought him here in the first place.

While the Red Bulls and their fans got little in return for the $4.6  million the club coughed up each season, they were the only ones really paying  the price. Karma is satisfying. Meanwhile, MLS benefitted from the extra  attention, conversation and controversy Márquez generated.

Until last weekend.

When Márquez tackled, then kicked, San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Shea  Salinas, shattering the 25-year-old’s collar bone, he crossed an obvious line.  At that absurd and violent moment, Márquez was no longer a punchline or the sort  of villain you’d find in professional wrestling. He became a genuine and  dangerous liability.

To his credit, the victim took to the high road.

“It was just a weird kind of thing to do. I don’t know Rafa personally. I  don’t know what’s in his heart or what goes on in his head. The play itself was  not very nice,” was the nastiest thing Salinas had to say. “I don’t care too  much what happens to him. I forgive him.”

Salinas was scheduled for surgery Wednesday and is expected to miss 6-8  weeks. Meanwhile, Márquez’s immediate fate lay in the hands of the increasingly  Draconian MLS Disciplinary Committee.

Just about everyone expects a hefty suspension.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be anything and I hope it won’t, but we’re  prepared for whatever comes,” New York G.M. Erik Solér told reporters Tuesday.

This play hardly could have caught Solér by surprise.

Márquez was trending downward. He concluded his disappointing ’11 season  by sparking a melee at the end of a playoff game vs. the L.A. Galaxy.  Unprovoked, Márquez caught the ball out of midair and then threw it at Landon  Donovan as the match drew to a close. During the ensuing fracas, rather than  face the music he deserved, Márquez flopped theatrically to the ground as if  struck in the face.

MLS suspended him for three games, meaning he missed the series decider  and the first two matches of the ’12 season.

Before his return, both Márquez and Solér claimed the player had learned  from past transgressions.

“I’m going to let my work speak for myself,” Márquez told reporters. “It’s up  to me to show (New York fans) how they should be welcoming me through my work  and through my performances on the field”

Speaking to Sporting News, Solér said, “He wants to come back and show  everybody what the real Rafa is, and we want him to do it. I’m absolutely  convinced you’ll see a very different Rafa Márquez, and he’s such a good player  and he can be key for the rest of the team to develop in the direction we want  to develop.”

Whether Solér genuinely believed what he was saying is irrelevant. At this  point, he’s saddled with a multi-millionaire man-child who can’t hold himself to  even a minimum standard of conduct. Márquez’s lack of respect for the league,  his club and himself is so significant that after returning to the field, he was  able to behave for only about three weeks.

“It’s not that you don’t get it; it’s that you don’t want to get it,” Hall of  Fame defender Alexi Lalas said recently on his podcast, The Shot. “You’re not  misunderstood, you’re not persecuted and you’re not complicated. You’ve become a  liability to the Red Bulls and MLS.”

Every story needs its villain, but Márquez is no longer worth it. It’s become  clear that MLS now must look elsewhere for an antagonist.

If Red Bulls officials don’t make every effort to move Márquez this  summer, even if that means buying out the remainder of his contract, they’re  foolish and self-destructive. Márquez won’t change, and now it’s not just his  own team that’s suffering.

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Special thanks for Paul Costa for bringing this to my attention


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